Parshas Terumah – The Character of a Man

How can you know who someone really is? In what way can we get real insight into the strength of one’s character?

Using a pithy alliteration, the Talmud gives us some advice on how to see beyond a person’s façade (including our own) and discover what an individual truly is all about:

“In three ways a person’s true character can be perceived – “b’koso, b’kiso and b’ka’aso” – with his cup [of wine], his wallet, and his anger.

The idea of learning a person’s true character when he has had his fill of drink is something that we all can understand, and is the same as the intent of the ancient Latin phrase “in vino veritas” – in wine [there is] truth.

Furthermore, it’s pretty clear that a person’s real nature can be discerned by seeing how he or she deals with anger, or what the person says when angry.

But what is the meaning of “with his wallet?”

Some understand it to mean that a person is truly tested when he or she has the opportunity for an unlawful gain. Will they succumb? Do they have the strength of character to resist?

While this is certainly true, I think there can possibly be another, less obvious, meaning; that one’s character is defined by how he or she spends money. Is the money primarily spent on materialistic “stuff,” or does the individual share it with those in need? Even when spending on one’s personal needs, are the expenditures for materialistic fleeting pleasures or for the more refined things in life that facilitate emotional and spiritual growth? And when being generous to others with money, what types of causes does a person primarily support?

In this week’s Torah portion, we find seemingly the first major Jewish fundraising effort, as the Jews are asked to donate to the Temple, a place of holiness and spirituality. The collection is so successful that later G-d has to tell them not to contribute any more! Although this is likely the first and last time that a fundraiser was so effective that people had to be asked to stop, the fact that the Jewish people gave generously to such a special cause is not surprising.  Throughout history, to this very day, Jews are outstanding in philanthropy.

But the matter is not so simple. In a later portion, the Torah tells us that the Jews were also generous donors to the idolatrous Golden Calf! Indeed, the Rabbis of the Talmud note this seemingly inconsistent behavior and find it exasperating, basically proclaiming “What do we do with the Jews, they donate to spirituality, yet they donate to sin!”

Although apparently contradictory, this behavior really can be readily understood. We all have an urge to achieve, a drive to give, a need to live a life of meaning. Sometimes we channel it properly, sometimes we don’t. Especially in today’s world of material plenty, when we have numerous options for how to spend our money, we should consider carefully the ramifications of our choices. As the Talmud teaches us, how we spend our money defines our values and who we are. Do we want to be defined by an ostentatious bar/bat mitzvah and a $400 pair of sneakers, or by helping the sick and needy and supporting causes that bring an awareness of G-d into the world?

We have the opportunity to self-define, the choice is ours. Choose wisely.

Leave a Comment